Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (December 15, 37 C.E. – June 9, 68 C.E.), born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also called Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, was the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (54 C.E. – 68 C.E.). Nero became heir to the then emperor, his grand-uncle and adoptive father Claudius. As Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus he succeeded to the throne on October 13, 54 C.E., following Claudius’s death. In 66 C.E., he added the prefix imperator to his name. In the year 68 C.E., at 31 years old, Nero was deposed. His subsequent death was reportedly the result of suicide assisted by his scribe Epaphroditos.
Popular legend remembers Nero as a pleasure seeker who engaged in petty amusements while neglecting the problems of the Roman city and empire and as the emperor who metaphorically “fiddled while Rome burned.” Because of his excesses and eccentricities, he is traditionally viewed as the second of the so-called “Mad Emperors,” the first being Caligula. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 64 C.E. much of the population blamed Nero for failing to control the fire. In retaliation, Nero began to persecute Christians. He ordered that Christians were to be arrested and sentenced to be eaten by lions in public arenas, such as the Colosseum, for the entertainment of the common people. Early Christians considered him an anti-Christ. This form of persecution continued more or less unchecked until Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in 313 C.E.
Rome’s earlier emperors (technically Rome’s first citizens) rose to power on the backs of great deeds. Nero, like Caligula, obtained power by the privilege of his birth. Born into great wealth and luxury with little training in administration, a life of indolence was probable for Nero. He was, in a sense, a victim of his own elite status.
Nero ruled from 54 C.E. to 68 C.E. During his reign, he focused much of his attention on diplomacy and increasing the cultural capital of the empire. He ordered the building of theaters and promoted athletic games. He also banned the killing of gladiators.
His reign had a number of successes including the war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire (58 C.E.–63 C.E.), the putting down of the British revolt (60 C.E.–61 C.E.), the putting down of a revolt in Gaul (68 C.E.), and improving diplomatic ties with Greece.
His failures included the Roman fire of 64 C.E., the Spanish revolt of 68 C.E. (which preceded his suicide), and the civil war that ensued from his death.
Born in Antium, near Rome, on December 15, 37 C.E., Nero was the only son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, sister and reputed lover of Caligula.
Nero’s great-grandparents were Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Aemilia Lepida and their son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was Nero’s paternal grandfather. He was also great-grandson to Mark Antony and Octavia Minor through their daughter Antonia Major. Also, through Octavia, he was the great-nephew of Caesar Augustus.
His mother was the namesake of her own mother Agrippina the Elder, who was granddaughter to Octavia’s brother Caesar Augustus and his wife Scribonia through their daughter Julia the Elder and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. His maternal grandfather Germanicus was himself grandson to Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia, adoptive grandson to her second husband Caesar Augustus, nephew and adoptive son of Tiberius, son of Nero Claudius Drusus through his wife Antonia Minor (sister to Antonia Major), and brother to Claudius.
Birth during Caligula’s Reign
When Nero was born, he was not expected to become Augustus (a title that is honorific of the first citizen). His maternal uncle Caligula had only started his own reign on March 16 of that year at the age of 24. His predecessors Augustus and Tiberius had lived to become 76 and 79 respectively. It was presumed that Caligula would produce his own heirs.
Nero (at the time called Lucius) came to the attention of his uncle soon after his birth. Agrippina reportedly asked her brother to name the child. This would be an act of favor and would mark the child as a possible heir to his uncle. However, Caligula only offered to name his nephew Claudius, after their lame and stuttering uncle, apparently implying that he was as unlikely to become Augustus as Claudius.
The relationship between brother and sister soon improved. A prominent scandal early in Caligula’s reign was his particularly close relationship with his three sisters, Drusilla, Julia Livilla, and Agrippina. All three are featured with their brother on the Roman currency of the time. The three women seem to have gained his favor and likely some amount of influence. The writings of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius report on their reputed sexual relationship with their brother. Drusilla’s sudden death in 38 C.E. only served to ensure this belief: she was reportedly Caligula’s favorite and was consequently buried with the honors of an Augusta. Caligula proceeded to have her deified, the first woman in Roman history to achieve this honor.
Lucius’s mother became known as an influential and prominent woman, although her brother would soon remove her from this distinguished position. Caligula had remained childless. His closest male relatives at the time were his brothers-in-law Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (husband of Drusilla), Marcus Vinicius (husband of Livilla), and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (husband of Agrippina). They were the likely heirs should Caligula die early. However, after the death of his wife, Lepidus apparently lost his chances, though not his ambitions, to succeed his brother-in-law.
In September 39 C.E., Caligula left Rome with an escort, heading north to join his legions in a campaign against the Germanic tribes. The campaign had to be postponed to the following year due to Caligula’s preoccupation with a conspiracy against him. Reportedly Lepidus had managed to become lover to both Agrippina and Livilla, apparently seeking their help in gaining the throne. Consequently, he was immediately executed. Caligula also ordered the execution of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, the popular legate of Germania Superior, and his replacement with Servius Sulpicius Galba. However, it remains uncertain whether he was connected to Lepidus’ conspiracy. Agrippina and Livilla were soon exiled to the Pontian islands. Lucius was presumably separated from his mother at this point.
Lucius’s father died from the effects of edema in 40 C.E. Lucius was now effectively an orphan with an uncertain fate under the increasingly erratic Caligula. However, his luck would change again the following year. On January 24, 41 C.E. Caligula, his wife Caesonia, and their infant daughter Julia Drusilla were murdered due to a conspiracy under Cassius Chaera. The Praetorian Guard helped Claudius gain the throne. Among Claudius’s first decisions was the recalling of his nieces from exile.
Agrippina was soon married to the wealthy Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. He died sometime between 44 C.E. and 47 C.E., and Agrippina was reportedly suspected of poisoning him in order to inherit his fortune. Lucius was the only heir to his now-wealthy mother.
Adoption by Claudius
At ten years old, Lucius was still considered an unlikely choice for heir to the throne. Claudius, 57 years old at the time, had reigned longer than his predecessor and arguably more effectively. Claudius had already been married three times. He had married his first two wives, Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina, as a private citizen. He was married to Valeria Messalina at the time of his accession. He had two children by his third wife, Claudia Octavia (b. 40 C.E.) and Britannicus (b. 41 C.E.). Messalina was still likely to produce more heirs.
However, in 48 C.E. Messalina was executed, accused of conspiring against her husband. The ambitious Agrippina soon set her sights upon replacing her deceased aunt. On January 1, 49 C.E. she became the fourth wife of Claudius. The marriage would last for five years.
Early in the year 50 C.E. the Roman Senate offered Agrippina the honorable title of Augusta, previously only held by Livia (14 C.E.–29 C.E.). On February 25, 50, Lucius was officially adopted by Claudius as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus. Nero was older than his adoptive brother Britannicus and effectively became heir to the throne at the time of his adoption.
Claudius honored his adopted son in several ways. Nero was proclaimed an adult in 51 C.E. at the age of 14. He was appointed proconsul, entered and first addressed the Senate, made joint public appearances with Claudius, and was featured in coinage. In 53 C.E., at the age of 16, he married his adoptive sister Claudia Octavia.
Emperor: Becoming Augustus
Claudius died on October 13, 54 C.E., and Nero was soon established as Augustus in his place. It is not known how much Nero knew or was involved with the death of Claudius, but Suetonius, a relatively well-respected Roman historian, wrote:
…even if [Nero] was not the instigator of the emperor’s death, he was at least privy to it, as he openly admitted; for he used afterward to laud mushrooms, the vehicle in which the poison was administered to Claudius, as “the food of the gods, as the Greek proverb has it.” At any rate, after Claudius’ death he vented on him every kind of insult, in act and word, charging him now with folly and now with cruelty; for it was a favorite joke of his to say that Claudius had ceased “to play the fool among mortals.” Nero disregarded many of [Claudius’s] decrees and acts as the work of a madman and a dotard.
Nero was 17 years old when he became emperor, the youngest Rome had seen. Historians generally consider Nero to have acted as a figurehead early in his reign. Important decisions were likely to have been left to the more capable minds of his mother Agrippina the Younger (who Tacitus claims poisoned Claudius), his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and the praefectus praetorianus Sextus Afranius Burrus. The first five years under Nero became known as examples of fine administration, even resulting in the coinage of the term “Quinquennium Neronis.”
The matters of the empire were handled effectively and the Senate enjoyed a period of renewed influence in state affairs. However, problems soon arose from Nero’s personal life and the increasing competition for influence among Agrippina and the two male advisers. Nero was reportedly unsatisfied with his marriage and tended to neglect Octavia. He entered into an affair with Claudia Acte, a former slave. In 55 C.E., Agrippina attempted to intervene in favor of Octavia and demanded that her son dismiss Acte. Burrus and Seneca, however, chose to support their Nero’s decision.
Nero resisted the intervention of his mother in his personal affairs. With her influence over her son declining, Agrippina turned her attention to a younger candidate for the throne. Fifteen-year-old Britannicus was still legally a minor under the charge of Nero but was approaching legal adulthood. Britannicus was a likely heir to Nero and ensuring her influence over him could strengthen her position. However, the youth died suddenly and suspiciously on February 12, 55 C.E., the very day before his proclamation as an adult had been set for. According to Suetonius,
[Nero] attempted the life of Britannicus by poison, not less from jealousy of his voice (for it was more agreeable than his own) than from fear that he might sometime win a higher place than himself in the people’s regard because of the memory of his father. He procured the potion from an arch-poisoner, one Locusta, and when the effect was slower than he anticipated, merely physicking Britannicus, he called the woman to him and flogged her with his own hand, charging that she had administered a medicine instead of a poison; and when she said in excuse that she had given a smaller dose to shield him from the odium of the crime, he replied: “It’s likely that I am afraid of the Julian law;” and he forced her to mix as swift and instant a potion as she knew how in his own room before his very eyes. Then he tried it on a kid, and as the animal lingered for five hours, had the mixture steeped again and again and threw some of it before a pig. The beast instantly fell dead, whereupon he ordered that the poison be taken to the dining-room and given to Britannicus. The boy dropped dead at the very first taste, but Nero lied to his guests and declared that he was seized with the falling sickness, to which he was subject, and the next day had him hastily and unceremoniously buried in a pouring rain.
Agrippina’s power soon further declined while Burrus and Seneca jointly became the most influential men in Rome. While his advisers took care of affairs of state, Nero surrounded himself with a circle of favorites. Roman historians report nights of drunken revelry and violence while more mundane matters of politics were neglected. Among his new favorites was Marcus Salvius Otho. By all accounts Otho was as dissolute as Nero but served as a good and intimate friend to him. Some sources even consider them to be lovers. Otho early introduced Nero to one particular woman who would marry first the favorite (Otho) and then the emperor: Poppaea Sabina, described as a woman of great beauty, charm, and wit. Gossip of Nero, Otho, and Poppaea each forming parts of a love triangle can be found in numerous sources (Plutarch Galba 19.2–20.2; Suetonius Otho; Tacitus two versions: Histories ; Annals ; and Dio Cassius.
By 58 C.E., Poppaea had become established in her position as Nero’s favorite mistress. But Agrippina was an enemy of her son’s new female favorite. The following year (59 C.E.) would mark a turning point in the emperor’s reign. Nero and/or Poppaea reportedly machinated the murder of Agrippina.
Then depriving her of all her honors and of her guard of Roman and German soldiers, [Nero] even forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace. After that he passed all bounds in harrying her, bribing men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept. When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva with him. On her arrival, instructing his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident, he detained her at a banquet, and when she would return to Bauli, offered her his contrivance in place of the craft which had been damaged, escorting her to it in high spirits and even kissing her breasts as they parted. The rest of the night he passed sleepless in intense anxiety, awaiting the outcome of his design. On learning that everything had gone wrong and that she had escaped by swimming, driven to desperation he secretly had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman Lucius Agelmus, when he joyfully brought word that she was safe and sound, and then ordered that the freedman be seized and bound, on the charge of being hired to kill the emperor; that his mother be put to death, and the pretense made that she had escaped the consequences of her detected guilt by suicide (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum).
Seneca attempted to convince the Senate that she was orchestrating a conspiracy against her son, but the reputation of the emperor was damaged beyond repair by this case of matricide. Nero later said that he was haunted by his mother’s ghost in the wisp of torch lights. Otho was soon also removed from the imperial court, and sent to Lusitania as governor.
Soon after, Nero murdered his aunt Domitia Lepida Major. Nero visited his aunt while she was sick and she commented that when he shaves his beard (a Roman symbolic act, usually performed during a ceremony at the age of 21), she will gladly die peacefully. Nero turned to those with him and joked, “I’ll take it off at once.” He then ordered his doctors to overdose his aunt with medicine and seized her property while she was dying.
A Series of Scandals
The next turning points in Nero’s life took place in the year 62 C.E.
The first was a change of guard amongst Nero’s advisers. Burrus died and Seneca asked Nero for permission to retire from public affairs. Their replacement as praetorian prefect and counselor was Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus. Tigellinus had been exiled in 39 C.E. by Caligula on charges of adultery with both Agrippina and Livilla, only to be recalled from exile by Claudius. Ambitious, Tigellinus managed to become a favorite of Nero (and, reputedly, his lover). Along with Poppaea he was considered to hold greater influence with the Augustus than Seneca ever could. One theory suggests that Poppaea attempted, in the four years prior (58 C.E.–62 C.E.), to separate Nero from his counselors and friends.
The second significant event of the year was the divorce of the emperor. Nero was now 25 years old, had reigned for eight years, and had yet to produce an heir. When Poppaea became pregnant, Nero finally decided to marry his mistress, but his marriage to Octavia had to be dissolved before doing so. At first he resorted to accusing her of adultery. However, Nero had already gained a reputation for this offense while Octavia was reputed to be an example of virtue. Some testimony was needed against her, but torturing one of her slaves only produced the famous declaration of Pythias reporting the genitalia of Octavia to be cleaner than the mouth of Tigellinus. Nero proceeded to declare the divorce on grounds of infertility, leaving him free to marry Poppaea and wait for her to give birth. However, the sudden death of Octavia on June 9, 62 C.E. resulted in incidents of public protest.
One of the earliest effects of Tigellinus’ advancement was the introduction of a series of treason laws; numerous capital sentences were carried out. During the same year, Nero executed two of his few remaining relatives:
- Gaius Rubellius Plautus – his mother Julia Drusi Caesaris was granddaughter to Tiberius and Vipsania Agrippina through their son Julius Caesar Drusus. She was also granddaughter to Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia Minor through their daughter Livilla.
- Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix – grandson to Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Antonia Major through their daughter Domitia Lepida. He was also maternal half-brother to Messalina. He had married Claudia Antonia, only daughter of Claudius and Aelia Paetina.
Disturbed Peace and Major Rebellions
In 61 C.E., a major rebellion broke out in the new province of Britannia (Britain), centered upon the native tribal leader Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who had been flogged and whose daughters had been raped by the Romans. The rebellion was eventually crushed, but the military and civilian casualties and the total destruction of three cities were a heavy toll to pay. The fault of Nero in this rebellion is debatable but there was certainly an impact (both positive and negative) upon the prestige of his regime.
Great Fire of Rome
On the night July 18 to July 19, 64 C.E. the Great Fire of Rome erupted. The fire started in densely populated areas like the Suburra, in which had been built the insulae, wooden dwellings, built on three or four floors. The fire burned for a week.
It was said that Nero viewed the fire from the tower of Maecenas, and exulting, as Nero said, “with the beauty of the flames,” he sang the whole time the “Sack of Ilium,” in his regular stage costume. Rumors circulated that Nero had played his lyre and sang, on top of Quirinal Hill, while the city burned. Over the years, this rumor became the legend that Nero had fiddled as Rome burned, an impossible act as the fiddle had not yet been invented. These and other accounts also depict him as not being in the city at the time (instead he was vacationing in his native Antium), rushing back on hearing news of the fire, and then organizing a relief effort (opening his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless and arranging for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors).
It is entirely unknown what actually caused of the fire. Ancient sources and scholars favor Nero as the arsonist, but massive accidentally started fires were common in ancient Rome and this was probably no exception.
At the time, the confused population searched for a scapegoat and soon rumors held Nero responsible. The motivation attributed to him was intending to immortalize his name by renaming Rome to “Neropolis.” Nero had to find a scapegoat of his own, and chose for his target a small Eastern sect called the Christians. He ordered known Christians to be thrown to the lions in arenas, while others were crucified in large numbers.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus described the event:
And so, to get rid of this rumor, Nero set up [i.e., falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Nero’s scapegoats were the perfect choice because it temporarily relieved pressure of the various rumors going around Rome. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Iudaea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome… Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of [their] hatred for the human race. Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.
The last sentence may be a rhetorical construct of the author designed to further damn Nero, rather than reportage of actual Roman sympathy for the Christians, which seems unlikely to many historians. Whichever is the case, Nero lost his chances at redeeming his reputation and fully quashing the rumors of his starting the fire when he immediately produced plans of rebuilding Rome in a monumental—and less flammable—style; his famous Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) was part of his rebuilding plan.
Nero the Artist and the Olympic Games
Nero considered himself a great artist and performer, and did not hesitate to show off his “gifts.” It was considered shameful for a Roman emperor to appear as a public entertainer, acting, singing, and playing his lyre. Nero, however, loved to perform before a crowd and craved the attention and applause. When he was performing, he insisted that all attention be on him during his entire performance.
While he was singing no one was allowed to leave the theater even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall, since the gates at the entrance were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum).
Hated by many citizens, with an increasing list of political enemies, Nero started to appreciate his loneliness, when in 65 C.E. he discovered the Pisonian conspiracy (named after Gaius Calpurnius Piso, who intended to take his place) and the involvement of old friends like Seneca in the plot. Conspirators were forced into suicide.
In addition, Nero ordered that Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a popular and valuable general, commit suicide because of the mere suspicion of new threats. This decision moved military commanders, locally and in the provinces, to start planning a revolution. Also, according to popular belief, Nero personally ordered the crucifixion of Saint Peter and, later, the beheading of Paul of Tarsus.
In 66 C.E., though Nero doted on Poppaea, he reportedly kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races. Poppaea had previously borne him a daughter, Claudia Augusta, who died of illness after four months. Nero still lacked an heir.
The emperor left for Greece in 67 C.E., where he participated in the Olympic Games and performed as a singer, while in Rome Nymphidius (a colleague of Tigellinus, taking the place of one of the Pisonian conspirators) was collecting the support of praetorians and Senators. Nero’s participation went along with huge sums of bribery; the Greeks postponed the games upon Nero’s wish and furthermore introduced the chariot race. A magnificent villa in Olympia was erected for Nero’s stay (and can be visited at the archaeological site). Even though Nero proved to be an unworthy competitor, it is believed he nevertheless won the games due to his bribes and cheating.
When performing, Nero was said to have had a keen rivalry with his opponents:
As if his rivals were of quite the same station as himself, he used to show respect to them and try to gain their favor, while he slandered them behind their backs, sometimes assailed them with abuse when he met them, and even bribed those who were especially proficient. When the victory was won, he made the announcement himself; and for that reason he always took part in the contests of the heralds. To obliterate the memory of all other victors in the games and leave no trace of them, their statues and busts were all thrown down by his order, dragged off with hooks, and cast into [sewers] (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum).
Returning to Rome after the following year, Nero found quite a cold atmosphere; Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, revolted, and this brought Nero to a paranoid hunt for eventual threats. In this state of mind he ordered the elimination of any patrician (aristocrat) with suspect ideas. His once faithful servant Galba, governor of Iberia, was one of those dangerous nobles, so he ordered his death. Galba, lacking any choice, declared his loyalty to the Senate and the people of Rome, no longer recognizing Nero’s authority. Moreover, he started organizing his own campaign for the empire.
As a result, Lucius Clodius Macer, legate of the legion III Augusta in Africa, revolted and stopped sending grain to Rome. Nymphidius corrupted the imperial guard, which turned against Nero on the promise of financial reward by Galba.
The Senate deposed Nero, and declared him an enemy of the state. Nero fled, and committed suicide on June 9, 68 C.E. It is said that he uttered these last words before slitting his throat: “Qualis artifex pereo; What an artist dies in me!” Other sources, however, state that Nero uttered his last words as he lay bleeding to death on the floor. Upon seeing the figure of a Roman soldier who had come to capture him, the confused and dying emperor thought that the centurion was coming to rescue him, and muttered the (arguably less grotesque) “hoc est fides.” A literal translation would be “this is fidelity,” but “what faithfulness” [on the part of the soldier] is probably closer to what Nero meant.
With his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end. Chaos ensued in the Year of the Four Emperors.
Mad or Misunderstood?
Suetonius, while generally a high-quality historian, has sometimes been accused of favoring certain emperors over others in his biographies. Portions of his biography of Nero appear openly hostile, and while it might be possible that Nero’s rule invited such hostility, some modern historians question the accuracy of his account. For example, the following quote, often taken as a sign of Nero’s insanity, might simply be propaganda:
Although at first Nero’s acts of wantonness, lust, extravagance, avarice and cruelty were gradual, some thought that they might be dismissed as senselessness of youth. However even then their nature was such that no one doubted that they were defects of his character and not due to his time of life.
While homosexual relations were not uncommon during this time, Nero allegedly took it a step further and castrated his lover, had a ceremony complete with a bridal veil and full dowry, and all while Nero “imitated the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered” during the ceremony.
He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his home attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife. And the witty jest that someone made is still current, that it would have been well for the world if Nero’s father Domitius had had that kind of wife. This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the courts and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images, fondly kissing him from time to time. That he even desired illicit relations with his own mother, and was kept from it by her enemies, who feared that such a relationship might give the reckless and insolent woman too great influence, was notorious, especially after he added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look very like Agrippina. Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing (Suetonius, Nero, XXVIII ).
Nero in Ancient Literature
- Tacitus’ Annals
- Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars
- Dio Cassius (Books 61 and 63)
- Philostratus II Life of Apollonius Tyana (Books 4 and 5)
A Jewish legend contained in the Talmud (tractate Gittin 56B) claims that Nero shot four arrows to the four corners of the earth, and they fell in Jerusalem. Thus he realized that God had decided to allow the Temple to be destroyed. He also requested a Jewish religious student to show him the Bible verse most appropriate to that situation, and the young boy read to Nero Ezekiel’s prophecy about God’s revenge on the nation of Edom for their destruction of Jerusalem. Nero thus realized that the Lord would punish him for destroying his Temple, so he fled Rome and converted to Judaism, to avoid such retribution. In this telling, his descendant is Rabbi Meir, a prominent supporter of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Roman rule (132 C.E.–135 C.E.).
Many scholars, such as Delbert Hillers (Johns Hopkins University) of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the editors of the Oxford and HarperCollins translations of the New Testament, contend that the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero, a view that is also supported by the Roman Catholic Church. In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, Nero was referred to as Neron Caesar, which has the numerical value of 666.
Later Christian Writers
Sibylline Oracles, Book 3, allegedly written before Nero’s time, prophesies antichrist and identifies him with Nero. However, it was actually written long after him and this identification was in any case rejected by Irenaeus in Against Heresies, Book 5, 27–30. They represent the midpoint in the change between the New Testament’s identification of the past (Nero) or current (Domitian) antichrist, and later Christian writers’ concern with the future antichrist. One of these later writers is Commodianus, whose Institutes 1.41 states that the future antichrist will be Nero returned from hell.
Nero in Medieval Literature
- In the Golden Legend, and its apocryphal account of his forcing Seneca the Younger’s suicide, where they meet face to face on this occasion.
- In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “The Monk’s Prologue and Tale”
- Giovanni Boccaccio’s Concerning the Falls of Illustrious Men
- Surprisingly, he does not seem to appear in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno
Nero in Modern Culture
- Nero’s rule is described in the novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. In the 1951 film version, Nero is played by actor Peter Ustinov.
- Nero is a major character in the play and film The Sign of the Cross, which bears a strong resemblance to Quo Vadis.
- Nero appears in Robert Graves’ books I, Claudius and Claudius the God (and the BBC miniseries adapted from the book, played by Christopher Biggins), which is a fictional autobiography of Emperor Claudius.
- Nero’s life, times, and death are chronicled in Richard Holland’s book of the same name, NERO: The Man Behind the Myth.
- In the film version of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series of novels, Nero takes the place of the book’s principal villain King John of England. Nero was portrayed by English actor Jonathan Cake.
- Federico Fellini’s film Satyricon portrays life in the time of the rule of Nero.
- Nero is a character in the novel The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie.
- The Life of Otho by C. Suetonius Tranquillus, #3 iii.1–2. Retrieved May 14, 2007.
- Tacitus, The History, Book I: January–March, AD 69. Tufts University. Retrieved May 14, 2007.
- Tacitus, The Annals, Book XIII A.D. 54–58. Tufts University. Retrieved May 14, 2007.
- Epitome of Book LXI. Cassius Dio, #11, lxi, 11.2–4 Retrieved May 14, 2007.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 11.15.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.